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Published: 2008-03-26

The U.S. Supreme Court Limits The Reach Of The ADA



The United States Supreme Court recently decided three significant cases which raised issues under the Americans With Disabilities Act ("ADA"). The decisions of the Supreme Court will greatly reduce the number of people who will be considered disabled and therefore entitled to the protections afforded by the ADA. In Sutton v. United Air Lines, Inc., Murphy v. United Parcel Service Inc., and Albertsons, Inc. v. Kirkingburg, the Court ruled that the test to determine whether an employee.s condition will qualify as a disability should take into account whether the condition has been corrected through medication or by other means.

Before these decisions were announced, courts were split as to whether an employee.s physical or mental condition was to be judged as a disability in its uncorrected state, or whether efforts the employee took to correct the condition should be considered in determining whether the employee was disabled. For example, in some courts an employee with poor uncorrected vision could be considered "disabled" even though the employee.s vision could be corrected to 20/20 with prescription lenses. Now, at least under the ADA, that same employee will be evaluated for a disability based on his or her corrected vision.

The Decisions

1. Sutton v. United Airlines, Inc.

In Sutton v. United Air Lines, Inc., two near-sighted pilots applied for employment as commercial airline pilots but were rejected because they did not meet the employer.s minimum uncorrected vision requirements. The pilots. vision was normal, however, when wearing corrective lenses. The Supreme Court observed that in order to constitute a disability under the ADA, an impairment must "substantially limit" a "major life activity". A "major life activity" has been defined as functions such as caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, and working. The Court reasoned that if an employee takes measures to correct or mitigate a physical or mental impairment, the effects of those measures should be considered when judging whether that person is "substantially limited" in a major life activity and hence disabled under the ADA. Because the pilots. vision in its corrected state allowed the pilots to see normally, the Court ruled that the pilots could not be considered "disabled" and hence were not protected by the ADA.

In reaching this conclusion, the Court analyzed the language of the ADA itself, which the Court considered to require that a person be "presently--not potentially or hypothetically--substantially limited" in order to be disabled. The Court observed that the definition of disability asks whether an individual.s impairment substantially limits the major life activities "of such individual", suggesting an "individualized inquiry." Finally, the Court observed that Congress could not have intended that the ADA would protect all persons whose uncorrected conditions would amount to disabilities, given that Congress found that only 43 million Americans suffer from a disability. The Court reasoned that if all Americans whose uncorrected conditions constituted disabilities were included, Congress would have cited a much higher number.

The Court also observed that an employee who was able to correct his or her impairment may still be protected by the ADA if the employee has a "record of" a disability or is "regarded as having" a disability. The employees in Sutton argued that their employer regarded them as "substantially limited" in the major life activity of "working." The Court rejected this analysis and ruled that to be limited in the major life activity of working, an employee must be unable to perform a broad class of jobs. The airline pilots were not "regarded as having" a disability because the employer viewed them as limited in only one job, being an airline pilot, not in a broad class of jobs.

2. Murphy v. United Parcel Service, Inc.

The Court reached a similar conclusion in Murphy v. United Parcel Service, Inc., where the Court ruled that an employee with high blood pressure who took medication to contain his hypertension was not "disabled" under the ADA because he was not limited in a major life activity. The employee was a mechanic who, as part of his job, was required to drive commercial vehicles. The employee.s uncorrected blood pressure, however, was too high to obtain a necessary health certification from the Department of Transportation to drive commercial vehicles. His employer terminated him for being unable to obtain the health certification. The employee argued that he was "regarded as having" a disability and subject to the protections of the ADA. The Court found that even if the employee was "regarded as" unable to meet the DOT regulations, that meant at the most that he was regarded as unable to perform the specific mechanic job that required a health certification. The employee had performed other mechanic jobs that did not require DOT certification for more than 22 years, and therefore could not show that he was regarded as unable to perform a broad class of jobs. Therefore, the employee did not qualify for protection under the ADA.

3. Albertsons, Inc. v. Kirkingburg

In Albertsons, Inc. v. Kirkingburg, the Court ruled that an employee with monocular vision could not make a claim under the ADA unless he could show that his vision, in its corrected state, substantially limited a major life activity. The employee in Kirkingburg, a truck driver, was terminated when his employer learned that his corrected vision failed to meet the Department of Transportation.s basic vision standards for commercial truck drivers. The employee alleged that his termination violated the ADA.

The Supreme Court rejected this argument because the employer was permitted to insist on employees meeting the DOT requirements. In discussing whether the employee.s monocular vision constituted a disability, however, the Court made two important observations. First, the Court observed that for an employee to be "substantially limited" in a major life activity, that employee must have a "significant restriction" in the employee.s manner of performing the major life activity, not merely a "difference" from the general public in the manner in which an employee performs that activity. Second, the Court stated that unless the impairment involved invariably restricted a major life activity, the impairment would have to be analyzed for its impact on the particular employee to determine whether it constituted a "disability." Because monocular vision did not constitute a disability in all cases, in Kirkingburg the employee would have to show that in his individual case, his corrected vision substantially limited a major life activity.

The Supreme Court.s decisions reiterate that there are three ways an employee may be protected under the ADA: (1) having a disability; (2) having a "record of" a disability; or (3) being "regarded as having" a disability. Even if an employee is not considered disabled under the first prong because the employee takes medication or otherwise can control the impairment, the employee may still have a "record of" a disability or be "regarded as having" a disability. The courts have provided little guidance as to what having a "record of" a disability means, and if an employer makes an employment decision based upon an employee.s impairment, the employee may have a strong argument that the employer regarded the employee as having a disability.

The Impact for California Employers

The Supreme Court.s decisions narrow the definition of a disability under the ADA and should significantly impact on the number of claims filed under the ADA. In California, however, employees can file disability discrimination claims under either the ADA or the California Fair Employment and Housing Act ("FEHA"), the state law prohibiting disability discrimination. The Supreme Court.s decisions do not directly apply to the FEHA. The California courts have not yet decided the issues posed to the Supreme Court, and while the Supreme Court.s decisions are certainly helpful, there is no guarantee that state courts reviewing the FEHA.s ban on disability discrimination will adopt the Supreme Court.s analysis for state law claims. From a practical standpoint, at least until we know how California courts will treat the issues decided by the Supreme Court, employers are well advised to continue their current practice of evaluating the physical and mental limitations of employees and determining whether reasonable accommodations are available.

Added Protection for California Employers?

Employers should be encouraged by the Supreme Court.s decisions because they add a potent defense to many claims that are asserted under the ADA. However, the decisions also may create new pitfalls, such as when an employee with an impairment intentionally fails to take medication or other ameliorative measures so as to come within the Act.s protection. Although this situation appears to be unlikely given the negative toll it could take on the employee.s physical or mental condition, employers must be on guard for such a possibility. As always, when making any employment decision based upon an employee.s physical or mental condition, it is best to evaluate the situation very carefully.

This article was originally published as a Labor & Employment Update (July 1999), a Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton LLP publication.